Eagle dance links man to his roots

Sunday, January 30, 2005

ROCK ISLAND, Ill. -- His arms stretched out like wings, Rudy Vallejo begins his dance to honor the eagle. His feet, clad in soft leather shoes, pound to the drumbeat and chant from a friend. His words, reverent and soft, give honor to a creature whose existence was threatened.

"They are a beautiful, beautiful bird to watch," Vallejo said to the dozens of people who gathered to watch his American Indian dance at the 16th annual Bald Eagle Days Environmental Fair and Wildlife Art Show in Rock Island.

The journey to the eagle dance for this 57-year-old East Moline man began as a child. Vallejo is half American Indian, a member of the Kickapoo of Kansas tribe. His mother is full-blooded Indian. His father is from Mexico. He remembers dancing as a "little fella" at Blackhawk State Park in Rock Island and on visits to various reservations with his parents.

Vallejo received his Indian name, Ship-she-wah-no, when he was 9. It means "vision of a lion."

His roots were always in his Native American past, but Vallejo spent most of his life active in modern America. He worked for 20 years as a correctional officer for the state. His roots began to grow again when he opened his mailbox one day four years ago. Inside, carefully packaged in dry ice, was the body of an immature bald eagle.

Indians are allowed to possess eagles because of the religious and cultural significance of eagle feathers, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency established the National Eagle Repository in Denver in the early 1970s to provide them.

The eagle arrived in Vallejo's mailbox shortly before the attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001. After the attacks, Vallejo decided he wanted to perform an eagle dance to honor not only his own heritage but the veterans who have served in the armed forces.

He went to his tribe's war chief to ask permission to do so. The war chief, an eagle dancer himself, showed Vallejo the dance's steps and taught him the proper prayers to chant.

Vallejo hopes to tell the stories and show others the artifacts of his heritage.

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